China's bereaved parents push for accountability
Furious, they are pressing local officials to explain why so many schools collapsed in the May 12 quake, killing their children, when surrounding buildings stayed standing.
Stung by their grief and anger, parents of children killed in two schools that collapsed in the May 12 earthquake are testing the limits of "people power" in China, challenging normally secretive authorities to give them an honest explanation of why their children died.Skip to next paragraph
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In Juyuan, where nearly 300 students died when their middle school crumpled, parents fed up with stonewalling by local officials plan to file a lawsuit against the school on Tuesday.
In the village of Wufu, where 129 elementary school children died, protesting parents have won a promise from the local government that some of them will be allowed to sit on the official committee investigating the disaster and monitor its work.
Skeptics in both communities doubt that either strategy will give them satisfaction. But the pressure of public outrage gives some observers hope. "If they win," says Liu Junning, an independent political analyst in Beijing, "it would be very important progress in establishing the rule of law in China."
The schools in Juyuan and Wufu collapsed when all surrounding buildings stood firm. "This was a tofu-dregs project," said one father at the Fuxin No.2 school in Wufu, using a popular Chinese term for substandard work. "We are peasants, we know nothing about construction, but look at the evidence," he added, gesturing at the ruins of his son's school. "Local officials made money off this."
Officials estimate that 7,000 schoolrooms collapsed during the 7.9-magnitude earthquake, which struck in the afternoon while classes were in session, killing thousands of schoolchildren.
When parents from Wufu staged a protest march over the children's deaths last week, a top party official in the nearby town of Mianzhu dropped to his knees before them, pleading with them not to take their complaints to his superiors. Ignoring him, they won an audience with the deputy vice mayor of Deyang, the regional seat of government.
"He promised they would investigate in a fair and open way," said Liu Yiguo, one of three representatives chosen by his fellow parents. "He said that, if it turns out this happened because of bad work by a government department, that department will have to take responsibility."
When a government expert came to the site last week to take samples from the ruins for examination, Mr. Liu said, "We checked that he took real samples from this school and that he sealed the bags. When they open the seals, we will be there, and we will check the whole process of inspection."
Some parents are dubious. "These local officials care about nothing but their position," complained Chen Yu, whose son died at Fuxin No.2. "They say the investigation will take a month. They just want to take as much time as possible."
It will take that long, claimed Zhang Qing, deputy head of a neighboring county government and a member of the investigating committee, "because we need to track back 20 years through the files to find out everything about this school's construction, the budget, and quality inspections."
"If need be, the people responsible will be arrested and sentenced," she added. "And if the parents are not satisfied with the results, we cannot rule out that they will file a lawsuit."
Ms. Zhang's regular presence at the site where the school stood, and where parents gather daily to grieve, appears to have contributed to the mood of relative calm in Wufu since last week's protest.
"I've been coming here for 10 days," she said. "These parents need officials to be with them so they can see we really care about this case."